Red Wine: Tooth-Decay Fighting Super Hero or Wishful Drinking?

Red wine vs. tooth decay

When it comes to wine, for some people there is no other choice but red. While others insist white wines are the best. And still others — we’re looking at you, millennials (according to Fortune Magazine anyway) — consider rosé to be the varietal supreme.

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Regardless of which bottle you choose to grab from the local “Ye Olde Wine Cask,” one truth remains unwavering: Red wine stains the heck out of your teeth. Imbibe just a little of the stuff and you are guaranteed to end up with unsightly splotches of maroon all over your incisors. It’s as certain (and unwelcome) as a big ‘ol lipstick “kiss” left on the edge of a white china tea cup.

However, some researchers are claiming that despite their reputation for turning pearly whites into ruby reds, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other red varietals might actually be a friend to your teeth, by helping to fight tooth decay.

Some bacteria can’t handle its wine.

According to the work of several Spanish scientists published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, during the winemaking process, specific antioxidant compounds are created which have been proven to reduce the risk of tooth decay. These compounds, known as polyphenols, decrease the ability of certain types of bacteria (including porphyromonas gingivalis and others known for damaging teeth and gums) to affix themselves to your teeth’s enamel.

Researchers determined this by placing red wine-derived polyphenols, P. gingivalis and two other oral-health threatening bacteria on cells that could mimic the properties of gum tissue. Using grapeseed wine extracts as a control, scientists noticed that the red wine’s polyphenols were better at resisting bacteria than the grapeseed wine extracts. Furthermore, when the wine’s polyphenols were coupled with a probiotic (Streptococcus dentisani) the wine’s compounds fought bacteria with even greater effectiveness.

Let’s not go toasting each other just yet.

Toasting with Red Wine

Despite the encouraging research regarding the red wine’s polyphenols benefits, there are still some uncertainties that exist. When interviewed about the wine polyphenols study, British Dental Association scientific adviser Professor Damien Walmsley noted that other aspects of wine's composition could limit the benefits of its apparent tooth-decay fighting polyphenols. In other words, sure, red wine may have the whole anti-bacterial thing going for it, but at what cost?

"In fact, the acidic nature of the wine means that consuming a lot of these drinks will damage the enamel of the teeth," Walmsley said, according to BBC News. "Therefore, until the benefits of this research are shown clinically, it is best to consume wine in moderation and with a meal to minimize the risk of tooth erosion."

Additionally, the researchers were honest about their study's limitations, noting that further examination would be required to determine the exact reason for polyphenols' antimicrobial effects. Also, they conducted their work outside of a living human body, creating an undeniable layer of uncertainty.

Ever in moderation.

Returning to the question we posed in our headline, the answer -- as with so many things -- falls somewhere between the extremes of precisely good or bad. You most certainly shouldn't trade in your brush and toothpaste for a case of 1961 red Bordeaux any time soon.

However: Can drinking red wine in moderation, in conjunction with regular oral hygiene practices, be truly harmful to your teeth? Not really, aside from the brief blow to their appearance. Throw biannual dentists' visits into the mix and, in so many words, you can have your wine and drink it too.

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